Goodbye to All That, that famous post World War I book, is the autobiography of Robert Graves, the English poet, writer and scholar. Much of the book deals with Graves traumatic experiences during the war. The title ironically refers to the passing of the old order that existed prior to the war. Such ideas as duty, honor, patriotism and by extension empire all were sacrificed at the front. For Britain the old order died on the battlefield and so too for many other empires and nations. But for Britain, though it would suffer again in another worldwide conflagration just a couple of decades later, its most traumatic experience ended with the First World War. A way of life, a way of belief, died once and for all time. Sure there was much horror and loss, triumph and decline to come, but the worst for Great Britain was over with by the Great War’s.
Lemberg, Lwow, Lviv
On the other hand, for Eastern Europe the horrors of the First World War were only the beginning. The region has spent the past one hundred years saying goodbye to all that, again and again and again. The war was just the start, both a beginning of the end and the start of a series of new beginnings that keep coming to an end. There is no place which better reflects this continuing series of historical upheavels than Lviv in the western Ukraine. It sits astride the geopolitical fault lines of east and west. The city began the 20th century as Lemberg, morphed into Lwow and finally transformed into Lviv. It has spent the past one hundred years saying goodbye to one war, one revolution, one ideology at a time.
What is it that Lviv keeps saying goodbye to? The old order, but which one. Consider that if there is someone in Lviv today who is one hundred years old (and in a city of 725,000 citizens there must surely be at least one), then they have lived under at least eight different political regimes, two of which were among the most lethal in human history and all of which repressed the population to a greater or lesser extent. Lvivites have suffered, survived and amazingly even thrived under a withering array of empires, nations and political entities. Life has never been boring for them, even if history has been unkind and often cruel.
Baffling Swiftness, Terrifying Brutality
Imperial, ideological and idiosyncratic usurpers have come and gone, with baffling swiftness and terrifying brutality. There was the Austro-Hungarian Empire which vanished, but left a lasting architectural and cultural imprint. It lost Lviv to the Russian Empire for nine months during the war, an interlude of occupation that saw the last Tsar, Nicholas II visit the city, but his empire was pushed back and then swept away, as were the Austrians by the end of the war. The first successor state, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, lasted all of three weeks. A sneeze mistaken for a hurricane at the time. Despite its brief tenure, it would have an afterlife of influence that would eventually be resurrected.
This still born republic was followed by two decades of another one, specifically the second Polish Republic. A golden age for the Poles, but like all golden ages, it is called such because worse, much worse followed. And that was the rule of the Soviet Union, two horrific years of purges and purgatories followed their occupation and incorporation of the city. Then the Germans arrived, an ill wind from the west and scattered the Soviets. They proceeded to blood spatter and scatter Lviv’s vibrant Jewish community with a whirlwind of holocaust. The Germans came and went, their blitzkrieg moving as fast in reverse as it had moved forward during invasion. In their wake, the Soviets came once again to purge and repurge in the name of Stalin. The Poles were moved out, more Ukrainians moved in. In barely the space of five years, Lviv had suffered four rulers, one ethnic group eradicated, another one expunged and a greatly oppressed one suddenly favored. This was history as whim, as caprice, with neither logic nor empathy.
The Soviets stayed for the next four and a half decades, a miracle of mediocrity, corruption and stasis. That must have seemed like a lifetime, but the clock was ticking away their time in power. The only difference is that in this case the clock moved much slower. Perhaps the clock had no hands, stolen like so much else from this charming city. Ukrainians finally put the hands back on the clock and reset the time in 1991. As it began to tick forward, the nation of Ukraine was finally born once, but not for all time. It was a false dawn. Progress slowed to a crawl, bogged down in a quagmire of corruption.
A Habit Of Breaking Hearts, Nations & Empires
The bog of corruption seemed to thicken as the years went by, but then it froze this past winter and the people found their footing. It started at Independence Square and the Maidan in far away Kiev, but the truth is that resistance never really ended in Lviv. It is in this border lands DNA. The most Ukrainian city in the Ukraine is just that, always and forever. It has said farewell to so many and so much. It has become a habitual heart breaker of political entities.
It confidently declares independence and the rest of the world reacts with shock. Was a new nation being born? Was an old one being given new life? Lviv and the greater region just passed into its eighth political iteration in just a century’s time. At this point the wheel of history here is not so much turning, as it is spinning. Propelled forward by an unseen force, the will of a people who have decided to take hold of their future. Fate has had its way with Lviv over the last hundred years, well goodbye to all that. It is finally a city’s, a region’s, a people’s turn to have their way with fate.